“How much did you used to drink?”
This is a question people often ask when I share that I am in recovery.
I have wondered if there is a certain volume consumed that unequivocally can attest to the fact that I am an alcoholic. Truth be told, the quantity I used to drink was hardly remarkable.
Perhaps the inquiry is meant to help the questioner differentiate their drinking habits from mine so they can easily rule out any need for personal concern.
Sometimes it feels like people are probing for the possibility that I am not actually alcoholic but rather a “lightweight” or a “heavy drinker” or an occasional “sloppy drunk” seeking to avoid future embarrassments.
What I have come to realize is that my publicly identifying as “in recovery” is actually often heard as an admission to a drinking problem and an invitation to focus on old painful experiences. My intention in sharing is to be known for who I am today - not to focus on a difficult past.
Rather than affirming my choice to live healthy or demonstrate interest in my recovery, the “how much did you used to drink” query seems squarely aimed at qualifying my problem. It seems the onus is on me to prove my personal disclosure is accurate.
The Make-Believe Malady
Irrespective of decades of research, alcoholism is still not widely understood nor accepted as a disease. Successfully treating people with a substance use disorder is still few and far between. The entrenched societal stigma associated with the condition coupled with the lack of readily accessible, evidence-based treatment options means there are millions of Americans struggling with addiction - without any hope of finding help.
Today only one in 10 of the 20+ million people with an active substance use disorder will find some form of treatment, and when they do, they still face additional barriers to lasting recovery - including, living with the shame and stigma associated with having had an addiction. By correlation, recovery is misunderstood and negatively stereotyped as is addiction. It is no wonder then that the vast majority of people in recovery stay silent and invisible rather than invite judgment, ridicule and potential backlash by being open.
My Quiet Ache
Between the ages of 13-18, I experienced tremendous loss with the sudden death of my brother, my parents’ contentious divorce, and moving several times. Even so, I knew I was loved and was given every opportunity to succeed. I was told I was a “survivor” and was encouraged to excel socially and academically.
As a teenager, I began to experiment with drugs and alcohol to soothe my pain. I found a sense of freedom and bonded with peers as we learned to balance partying with producing results that made our parents proud. In spite of the substance use and the implosion of my nuclear family, I was doing well - at least that’s what it looked like from the outside. I was popular, accepted to prestigious colleges and had what it took to be “successful.”
It was during that time when I felt my parents could not be present for me that I found comfort in my Jewish heritage. I had the foundation of a proud Jewish identity and found solace being part of a People who had endured unspeakable hardships yet maintained identity, purpose, connection and values. During the summer of my parents’ divorce, I visited Israel for the first time with my 10th grade confirmation class. It was a pivotal moment in my identity as a Jew. In college, I spent a year at the Hebrew University, and at the age of 22, I made aliyah. I was seeking my people, a sense of belonging and desire to create home. I was also still using alcohol to numb my pain.
By my mid-30’s, I had earned a graduate degree, gotten married, and returned to California to raise our children - who attended Jewish day school and Camp Ramah in the summers; I had developed a career raising money for Jewish organizations; cultivated meaningful friendships; belonged to a Conservative shul and volunteered for my local Federation. The negative impact of my drinking was invisible to most everyone. From the outside, I looked successful. Yet, in the depths of my being, I knew something was not ok. My drinking helped quiet the ache and ignore my knowing.
It was not the frequency, nor the quantity of alcohol consumed that signaled I had a problem, but rather it was my inability to predict or control the way I would behave once alcohol was in my system.
I often had blackouts. I was unable to remember entire evenings when I was under the influence. I would not pass out - but rather engage in life with absolutely no ability to recall later what had taken place. I participated in but completely missed out on all kinds of events. I forgot entire conversations with my daughters. I put myself and others in harm’s way. I could piece together the gaps to keep my life working and looking good. I was in denial. The alcohol was “still working” to quiet my ache and lubricate my life.
I did not know anybody in recovery when I was growing up, or for that matter, until I got sober at the age of 39. I knew people had alcoholism and drug addiction - that was a hushed and shameful topic about distant family members and rock stars in tabloids - who were all “lost-causes.” I can only imagine what it could have been like had there been a role-model - a teacher, a friend’s parent, a relative - someone trusted and relatable, who could be living proof that a full, healthy and happy life was possible for those who struggled with a substance use disorder. Perhaps I would have recognized myself in one of them and found help earlier.
It was not a DUI or some other public and humiliating episode that caused me to realize I needed to stop drinking, but rather the nagging feeling of overwhelm that fed a sense of fear and self-loathing. The outside indicators of success meant little when I felt such inner discomfort.
I needed to change beyond anything I had tried in the past. I had already sought therapy and emotional transformation through meditation retreats; I cut out sugar and flour; I lost weight and got into better shape; I changed professions; I got a divorce to make a fresh start; I redecorated my home. What privilege to explore so many remedies! I tried to change the way I felt by taking extravagant vacations; painting my fingernails exotic colors; getting Botox injections; dating interesting people. Yet none of these solutions provided sustainable relief nor the healing I needed. None of these solutions addressed my alcoholism.
The Gifts of Recovery
When I found my way into recovery, I felt broken and full of shame. On the first day I sat in a meeting, I heard someone share “we are as sick as our secrets” and I knew I was in the right place. I was willing to stretch beyond my comfort zone and learn from people who had found freedom from the insanity of addiction.
In recovery, I have learned to navigate life differently with new tools, new skills and new strategies aimed at healing old wounds, and preventing new ones, paving the way to a healthier, happier me. During the first few years, I felt fragile - cautiously optimistic, vulnerable, and wanted to make sure I surrounded myself with people I could trust who would support my recovery journey.
Early on, when I looked for support outside of recovery circles, I was frequently met with questions focused on qualifying my problem. It was a lonely and awkward experience. At the time, I still carried shame about my behavior from when I was drinking. So I learned to keep quiet about my journey and not seek support from those outside of recovery.
In fact, it took me three years from the time I stopped drinking to share openly and confidently about my new life in recovery. The not drinking part of recovery was just the starting point for learning a whole new way of living.
It has been thirteen years since I got sober and today my disclosure about being in recovery is motivated by a desire to show up authentically; share something wonderfully rewarding and valuable; shatter negative stereotypes; reduce shame and stigma; and create greater understanding. While the desired outcomes are not always achieved, given the prevalence of stigma and the addiction epidemic - remaining silent, misunderstood, invisible, or ashamed is no longer an option for me.
When I am open, I share about my gratitude and my solutions in recovery. I steer conversations away from past problems and aim to identify what is working. I seek to be visible as a healthy and proud person in recovery so that the teenager who feels alone, or the colleague who holds a secret, or the friend who worries about her children will know that I am a safe person who can share solutions and offer hope.
What a gift to realize that which once was my greatest shame has led to the platform upon which I can stand to be of service.
Each Friday night, before we light candles to welcome Shabbat, my partner and I sit across from each other at our table enjoying the aroma of freshly baked challah, and we practice a ritual of gratitude. We each drop two coins in our tzedekah box. One to recount the blessings of our week and the other to make a wish for the greater good. This ritual means so much to me both as a person in recovery and as a Jew.
As we light the candles for Shabbat each week, may we consider the act of being open as a gift for those seeking connecting and needing hope. May the blessings of recovery be freely shared as a source of joy and a path to healing for all who struggle. And may we end stigma and shame.
Fay Zenoff is an addiction recovery advocate, consultant and coach living in Northern California. Her work is focused on ending stigma and helping people thrive in recovery. Fay offers webinars and individual sessions for those interested in cultivating integrated and proud recovery identities. Her experiences and work have been the subject of articles in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, USA Today, NPR, among others. Fay earned an MBA from Kellogg Graduate School at Northwestern University and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has been in recovery since 2006. To contact Fay visit (https://fayzenoff.com/).